For my entire career in community development I have held the belief in family as the structure that embodies the values that allows individuals and entire communities to succeed and be positive contributors to our society. My spiritual beliefs, work ethic and service to the poor were nurtured by my mother and father in our family. Those values have guided my work and are an anchor to everything I do in both my personal and professional life.
I grew up in the barrio in South Phoenix, although when I was young I didn’t think of it as a poor community.
I tell people that we lived in the Mexican version of “Leave it to Beaver.” Every night, we would all have dinner together, and my siblings and I would be in big trouble if we weren’t at the table when dinner started at 4:30. Spending that time together, with my parents and my brothers and sister, was an important part of my day.
Our house was next to the railroad line, and in the 1950s, that attracted some homeless people who’d travel the tracks. Each day my mother made tortillas and frijoles that would be served with dinner. Anyone who rang the bell, asking for help, she’d give him a burrito. When we were on our way to church on Sundays, we’d stop by a little local grocery store, where there were usually a few men hanging out, asking for change. My dad always gave them some money. When I said to him once that they would likely just spend it on alcohol, he told me, “Our faith tells us to serve the poor and not to judge. And I pray to God that, if one of my sons or my daughter was ever in trouble, that people would help them.”
My family was the source of many such constructive lessons about compassion and helping others that led me to a career in community development. One negative lesson also sticks with me, though. My father worked for the utility company, doing dangerous work fixing damaged gas lines. When he applied for a job as a foreman, he was fairly confident he’d get the position, since he’d been on the job for quite some time and had enough expertise to have trained many of the other foremen and even some of the supervisors.
A week or so later, at the dinner table, my mother asked him if he had gotten the promotion. He said “no,” another qualified candidate had gotten it instead. Two more times he was passed over, and when I was 15, I was the one who asked him the last time if he’d gotten the job. My dad was an ex-Marine, a hard-working man who was perpetually positive and unwilling to accept any excuses. So it was surprising to see the defeated look on his face. “No I didn’t get the job,” he said. “I’m not going to apply again. They told me I wouldn’t get that job because I’m Mexican American.”
That incident scarred me. In fact, I’m still angry about it. I vowed I would never allow that to happen in my community if I had anything to do with it. It changed me, made me want to be involved and to find a way to fight for my community and my people.
I took that negative energy and turned it into something positive. I joined Chicanos por La Causa, a community development corporation here in Arizona, and learned how to build structures, to do real estate, to make things happen in the community. When it comes to community development, though, at the end of the day, those of us in the field need to stay mindful of why we do the work. At the Raza Development Fund, we have the stewardship of resources coming into the community. We’re responsible for other people’s money, and we have to run our work as a business. But we always have to ask, how many families are we going to touch with this project, how will it make a difference? Because if we don’t have the right answers to those questions, then we’re just doing a business deal—and that’s not our job.
Family is at the heart of all our work in comprehensive community development, and family is a resource too. Take education. I believe that education is the single most important issue affecting Latino and low-income families in communities today. In the communities in which I work, Latino, Navajo and Vietnamese parents make major sacrifices to ensure that their children have better lives than they had. We’ve talked with experts in bilingual and cross-cultural ?education about challenges and changes in the classroom. ?As we know from the Census, rapid growth in Latino enrollment in schools across the U.S. is having unprecedented impact on schools.
My concern is that despite all the ongoing work in the education arena, Latino children at all grade levels are struggling and their graduation rates are the lowest of all groups. However, school administrators have not changed their parent/teacher/student communication strategies in generations. We must find ways to tap into the structure and power of families to improve education.
We’re in a terrifically difficult time for community development. The economic crisis is dragging on, with a bigger effect in the neighborhoods we serve than anywhere else. The real estate market has historically bounced back, but this time, I don’t expect it to get much better for another decade. Government budgets are being slashed, leaving fewer resources to deal with greater problems. Community development is going to have to move forward; we’re not going to be able to continue what we’ve been doing over the last 30 years. To survive, we’re going to have to work in partnerships: The city needs nonprofit developers, and CDCs are going to have to work with the city and state in new ways.
As we rebuild and rethink how we work and what we do, let’s remember that the programs we run are successful when they protect and strengthen the family. Growing up, my family didn’t just teach me about the need to give back to the community. I learned values and spiritual and religious morals from my parents; they protected me, educated me and provided examples that helped me become the man I am today.
Family is the backbone of community. It does the most crucial and sometimes hidden work in keeping our neighborhoods healthy and strong. Any community development program is better and more effective when family is considered in how it operates.
Tom Espinoza is the president and CEO ?of the Raza Development Fund. Under his leadership, RDF has become the largest Latino Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) loan fund in the U.S, having served 125 organizations that have received more than $135 million in community development loans, leveraging $681 million in private capital for projects serving low-income individuals and families. In 1999, Mr. Espinoza pioneered a faith-based approach to community development, establishing RDF’s Partnership of Hope and the Hope Fund.
*This article first appeared in: "The Journal of Comprehensive Community Development" Journal Volume 2, Number 1 - July 2011